Monday, June 23, 2008

Berries - more than just nature's candy.

There are few things in life that give me as much joy as watching my kids gleefully dive into a bowl of luscious cherries and seeing the sweet, sticky juice run down their chins. And have you ever gone strawberry picking? Then you know how placing that sun-warmed berry in your mouth makes you understand what summer is all about. I've often wondered why nature makes this abundance of such sweet treats available at the beginning of the sun season, and here is my theory: after a long, cold season of rich, hearty meals, followed by a season of cleansing bitter greens and sprouts, we are finally ready for a boost of nutrients. We need energy for the summer - energy for increased activity, energy for the longer days and energy to rebuild our bodies and fortify for the cooler, less nutritionally-rich months.

All berries are loaded with vitamin C. Vitamin C plays an important role in diminishing the harmful effect of free radicals. It is interesting to note that vitamin C is a potent protectant against the damaging effects of ultraviolet light damage, which most of us refer to as sunlight. It not only protects against sun damage, but does a much better job of it than any sunscreen you can find on store shelves. It stays in the cells for approximately 36 hours and protects even if you go swimming or stay out in the sun too long. Got too much sun? It works to repair the damage - it slows down photoaging, helps with the formation of elastin and is crucial to the process of incorporation of proline into collagen. Tyrosinase and vitamin C, both of which are abundant in berries, team up to disrupt the oxidative process involved in the production of melanin, meaning no deep tan and no wrinkles. I am not suggesting you abandon your sunblock altogether, but you should know that there are some other natural options available.

And there's more - less sunscreen means more vitamin D production! Recent studies show that a deficiency in vitamin D greatly increases your risk of cancer. Most of us, especially in the northern climes, are deficient in vitamin D and the sun is the best, most efficient way to get it.

Antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals are all abundant in berries. Different varieties combined together have synergistic qualities, meaning that their benefits multiply exponentially. When traditionally eaten fresh and with cream, the nutrients become even more bio-available.

Time and heat destroy all the precious nutrients, so go to the market early, look for local, unsprayed berries and taste them. Are they sweet, fragrant and flavorful? If they are, chances are they are freshly picked. Ask the farmer if they are sprayed (the berries, not the farmers) - if they were, skip them. Berries rank high on the Dirty Dozen list (don't know what this is? Time to sign up for my newsletter...) and with their thin skins, they absorb the chemicals right in.

So, you love cherries, but hate pitting them for the kids? It took me a while to figure this out (don't ask why), so I am guessing that some of you are in the same boat. Tada! The cherry pitter - this one is fantastic - Oxo Good Grips Cherry Pitter It is so efficient and easy, it made eating cherries in my house a daily event.

On Saturdays, at the Union Square Greenmarket, you will find many farmers who sell unsprayed berries. Walk around, look, taste and ask - you are sure to find plenty of options. On Sundays, I head to the Tompkins Greenmarket where Norwich Meadows Farm displays rows of gleaming berries.

So, my advice: eat your berries, eat them now, eat lots of them, and eat them just-picked, local and unsprayed.

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